Even more than Smallville, MHR is a system that runs on tactical GM constraint. That is, the GM has system-based restrictions on certain actions, and can’t just narrate anything desired in these cases. In particular, the GM’s Doom Pool is a mechanic that relies on fixed rules to make it grow: you generally only get to add dice to it when you give players plot points for their 1s or you sacrifice NPC actions to add to the pool. Both of these things can happen a lot, but they can’t happen at a whim.
And the available dice in the Doom Pool become the GM’s currency. They’re needed to steal initiative, increase NPC dice pools, increase NPC success, and several other useful tricks. They basically work like Plot Points for the GM in a lot of ways. Without spending Doom Pool, players will generally be able to have their way against challenges unless the NPCs involved have lots of high stats. This works in many ways like other resource mechanics that rise and ebb between players and GM like coins in DRYH and push dice in Technoir: it establishes a natural rhythm of difficulty within a session.
So, while the GM is still given a lot of leeway to adjudicate and stack the deck with NPCs, there are many more limits on GM authority than in a traditional RPG. This is pretty common to indie games, but not nearly as common in mainstream games. And it’s something that might not be readily apparent if you haven’t seen the game in action. The GM is letting the system do a lot of the heavy lifting as far as setting the pacing and tone of the game: the threat level of most challenges relies on how the dice fall and how the GM manages the dice tactically, rather than how the GM has arranged the scenario.
Thus, the first thing the game system does to get a result that feels like a supers comic is to free up a lot of the GM’s mental focus from second guessing whether something feels like a comic.
Setting the Scene
Another factor to keep in mind is that scenes include some deeply embedded formulas to control pacing as well. Specifically, the game assumes that there are two types of scene: an action scene where conflict occurs, and a transition scene where recuperation and information/resource gathering occur. And these are generally meant to alternate off: if the PCs do a bunch of stuff that’s conflict, even if it’s a sequence of conflicts, that’s often a single action scene. If the PCs spend days doing research and planning, that’s one transition scene.
There are fairly strict limits as to what can happen within a scene, particularly the healing and resource gathering that can occur in a transition scene. This is not a game where players are incentivized to take a lot of downtime, collect a huge advantage, and roll in. Ten minutes coordinating with SHIELD command before diving right back into the fray gets you no less advantage than taking three weeks off, at least as far as system elements are concerned. These are superheroes, and the game doesn’t reward them for being overly cautious.
However, it might reward them for amping up the drama. A three week break could be a single transition scene (with only a single attempt to heal and gather resources)… or it could be broken into several transition scenes if players pick fights. And these could be social or mental battles as well. “I’m going to go harangue SHIELD leadership about registration” or “I’m going to go challenge Magneto to a game of chess” are valid tactics as well, if the GM doesn’t have a rollercoaster of action scenes ready to go. Marvel series tend to feature almost as much page content of allies dealing with their own personal dramas, and the scene structure makes that pretty viable: initiating an action scene that you’re pretty sure you can win (and which is likely to damage a non-physical track) isn’t a bad way to farm Plot Points, heals, and resources.
The meat of the game, of course, is action scenes. As noted above, these could focus on mental or emotional conflicts, but typically characters will find it easier to direct their superpowers toward physical battles (unless they’re psychics). Like the last Marvel game, action scenes phrase rounds as Pages and individual turns as Panels. Unlike the last game, this is more than a cosmetic gloss for normal RPG mechanics.
A major factor that leads to this is the initiative system. Fred Hicks describes it here better than I could, but, in essence: players start the conflict unless the GM pays Doom dice to interrupt (and it costs more if the players have traditionally initiative-boosting powers), after an action is taken the acting player gets to designate the next character to act (again, unless the GM pays to interrupt), and the round doesn’t end until everyone has gone once (and then the last actor gets to decide who starts the next round). This has several cool effects: it eliminates any slowdown from rolling and tracking results for initiative, it gets players thinking tactically about how they should coordinate, and it makes managing large squads of NPCs much easier (since they can all pass to each other if desired).
This initiative system also heavily supports the comics feel: players naturally get into a rhythm of making sure their actions have flow, in the same way a series of comic panels might show a related series of several characters maneuvering. Since panels aren’t of a predefined length of game time and this system persists even when the party is split, you can create a very nice balance of “meanwhile, somewhere else” action that keeps everyone involved. In my first playtest, I was very easily able to flip back and forth between Mr. Fantastic and Thing dealing with Carnage while Invisible Woman and Human Torch were elsewhere dealing with a mob of prisoners, and the flow felt very similar to how a comic would break up those beats across a few pages.
As mentioned, actions themselves have no set timescale. There is no concept of a predefined limit as to what a successful result looks like precisely and how long that should take, just an intent to create an effect, a method of resisting, rolls, and building a story out of how the dice fall. Obviously, there are a lot of systems where you don’t have to lock yourself into a fixed time frame and can describe more or less happening with an action, but this is one of the few that’s made it readily apparent to me that the difference between a one second blast and a 15-second flurry of attacks is just whichever one makes more sense based on the rolls and pacing. What keeps actions to a manageable length is that you can’t generally do a ton of things in one action without a lot of Plot Points to blow on rolling and keeping extra dice. Maybe it had to do with the presence of a focused, comics-savvy group, but we found it quick and easy to fall into a rhythm of summarizing the result of an action as a panel in a comic book: if you can draw it clearly in a fraction of a page (or possibly on a splash page with a really good roll), that’s about what you can do with an action. And none of the other supers games I’ve played have ever naturally fallen into that rhythm.
And since this post is threatening to exceed last week’s if I go into more detail now, I’ll save the particulars of how the dice system accomplishes that for next week.